Client Bonding: Try Improv

We’re in an exciting time of accelerated change in this business. More than ever, having a close relationship with clients is crucial. As a career creative director, I’ve found that my strongest bonds have been with clients who are highly collaborative.

These bonds are most often forged in an environment where agency and client work together and build off of each other’s ideas. Yes, such connections are rare, but they’re worth the effort. They tend to produce thinking that is both innovative and achieves better-than-expected results.

While there’s no simple recipe to follow, I’ve found, surprisingly enough, that the principles I learned years ago as a student of improvisational comedy are great guideposts. I’ve narrowed them down to three main points.

1. Listen. Listening is one of the most critical skills to have as a collaborator. In improv, performers “listen” to their stage partners with both their ears and eyes. Every word and action, no matter how subtle, contains essential information that can lead to the next idea.
2.
It takes effort to listen properly. As the lines between our personal lives, business lives and technological lives intertwine, keeping focused is increasingly difficult. Yet, it’s possible to do. Let someone else have the floor, try to resist the urge to interrupt another’s train of thought and be interested in what’s being said rather than how you intend to respond.

Use positive body language when listening. Negative body language (slouching, frowning, distasteful expressions) has an impact on what’s being said; it may deter any further input from the person you’re trying to make an effective partner. Instead, make eye contact and sit leaning forward into the group.

Put the electronic leash away. I’m a smart phone addict too, but multi-tasking can really disrupt the collaborative chi. If you can’t tear yourself away from social networking with the world out there, you’re not collaborating on the issue right here.

2. Build. Now that you’re actively listening, find ways to accept whatever is being said and build on it. Improvisers call this technique, “Yes, and…” Essentially, everything an actor says on stage is not only treated as truth, but becomes a building block for the next actor’s contribution. If one actor says, “The sky is lime green,” the other supports it by saying, “We just painted it” or “That darn nuclear plant.”

Blocking is the term used when someone doesn’t build on another’s offer. Imagine the previous example, but instead of accepting that the sky is lime green and then finding a way to justify it, the second actor replies, “No it’s not.” Not only is the audience silent, the actors must start the building process over again.

To be more supportive in meetings, just start talking. Force yourself to contribute and you’ll probably find that ideas suddenly come to mind. People are often afraid to speak up out of fear they’ll say something stupid and be judged. But when you start talking, your instincts start to search for something relevant to say.

And in the beginning stages of any collaborative session, be open to the possibilities that any idea may bring. Resist the temptation to judge-at least temporarily. If you think there is an inherent problem in another’s idea, find a positive way to build on that specific problem. Be constructive, not destructive.

3. Relinquish control. Allowing yourself to unclench your need to control forces you to take risks. Control inhibits creativity. Collaboration is all about supporting one another and leading each member of the group away from his or her comfort zone. Sometimes not knowing where you’re going can lead you to some interesting places. To shed your inner control freak, embrace failure. It can be humbling, but the more you fail, the more you succeed. That’s because the more accepting the group is of failure, the safer it is for people to take creative risks and share ideas without fear.

Another frequent manifestation of control is using language that may be foreign to your creative partners. Buzzwords and jargon unique to a particular industry are often the weapons used on corporate battlefields to signal, “I know more than you, Bud.” This kind of posturing builds barriers, not respect. Lighten up. We know you’re smart.

Successful collaboration celebrates ideas, no matter where they may originate. This thinking builds strong partnerships and, more importantly, successful brands.

You might even have a laugh or two along the way.

Ron Smrczek is executive creative director of Taxi, New York, part of the Toronto-headquartered Taxi network. He can be contacted at ron.smrczek@taxi-nyc.com.